Patrick Rogers
September 10, 2014 12:24 pm

The hostess leads the party to the table; they peel off their coats, hats, sunglasses, etc., and then they look over the menu (although these days they usually text or take selfies). I observe for a moment and analyze what I’m up against; whether they’ll be jolly, aggressive, tip-happy, boorish, or sometimes even shy; there are a million types of patrons and I tend to notice patterns from the moment they sit down. I take a breath, grab a carafe of water, and then head their way.

Let me tell you something that you’ve probably already surmised—waiting tables is not a glamorous job. It’s not even necessarily a fun job. It is however, a common occupation, and a perfect job for writers and actors. I happened to get my start in the service industry because I needed gas/food/drinking money when I was in college and my parents had already footed the bill to too many other things (god bless them). So, I stuck with waiting tables, got my degree in Film Theory and realizing its opportunities for employment (literally about three), decided to keep serving.

But, just because waiting tables can be a thankless job with no potential for growth, that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its fringe benefits. Being a waiter forces you to learn about humans from a unique, “outsider” perspective. From my days of waiting tables, I learned one of the greatest lessons in life: how people communicate. It’s helped me maintain healthy relationships, it’s deepened my work friendships, and it’s given me a better sense of self. So let’s take a look at three of the most pivotal communication lessons that can be learned from being a server.

1. People Just Need to Be Acknowledged

The difference between a party that knows you’re aware of their needs and a party that isn’t sure is the difference between a happy table and a nightmare of the human race. People want you to acknowledge that their iced tea is low, that they’ve dropped their knife, and that the steak is taking longer than expected. They need reassurance. If you are cognizant when a patron’s soda is empty and tell them that a refill is on the way then you’re already halfway to being a decent waiter. If I’m late to greet a table because I’m busy, I’ll swing by to let them know I’ll be with them in a minute. The truth is, everybody just wants to be acknowledged and reassured that their needs are important.

This is the case, not only in restaurants, but in life in general. How many times have I been passive-aggressive to a boyfriend hoping, praying, wishing, that he would acknowledge my anger? Or, how often do we wait for a co-worker to recognize the effort we’ve put into a project? It’s human nature to want acknowledgement. Babies cry and grown men weep all really just wanting their pain/anger/joy to be acknowledged by another. We all want a witness to our magnificent existence, even if that witness just gets us a side salad.

2. Repetition is Key to Communication

When I wait on a table, I focus so fixedly on what’s being said that I almost never miss a beat, but we all have our moments, including myself, and that’s why I never leave the table until I repeat their order. In this way I acknowledge what they’ve said, and also give the table a chance to hear their order again to see if that’s what they really wanted. Many times I’ll have customers tell me that what I said was correct but they’d actually rather have the whatever it may be. By repeating the order I’m reassuring the guest that they’ve been heard and I’m clarifying their needs.

In personal relationships, I’ve found repetition useful, especially during highly emotional situations when communication has gone off the rails and clarity is needed to put things back on track. During disagreements, it’s a clever way to focus in on the subtext lying below the surface of the words.

Repeating what another person has said during an argument can help to clarify what their true intentions are. This is not meant as a passive-aggressive tool, but as a way of streamlining communication.

So if someone is going off on you about how they’re always doing the dishes, you can say, “You feel as though you’re the only one doing the dishes, correct?” Once you’ve acknowledged what they’ve said, and repeated the complaint back to them, you’ll be surprised by how often people will relax and communicate more easily. Feeling like you’ve been heard can have a remarkably disarming effect, and that’s what I’ve found with both my customers at restaurants, and in my personal relationships. Repetition for clarity’s sake has diffused a number of bombs in my household. Not only does it show that you are listening intently, it allows other people to hear their own thoughts and, in turn, decide whether they really meant what they said.

3. Your Energy is Everything

There’s an episode of Oprah in which her guest, who couldn’t speak or communicate for a number of months, shared the most valuable lesson that she learned during that time, “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this space.” That sentence can be applied to just about any setting, but it especially fits in an environment with people you don’t know. When dealing with customers, you aren’t given a fact sheet for the type of day they’re having, or the traumas of their life, or what they’re celebrating, or that you look like an ex of theirs that they hate. Unfortunately, that’s not for you to know. All you can do is be responsible for your own energy, and not allow other people’s vibes to monopolize the mood in the room.

You have to be impenetrable to be a waiter. Most shifts consist of getting snapped at, being told you’re wrong, dealing with drunkards, having some managers treat you like you’re dumber than a pile of rocks. But, if you focus on harvesting your own energy, on manifesting your own confidence, happiness, and joy, they can’t touch you. The key is to remain calm, communicate clearly, focus on the task at hand, and serve the table to the best of your abilities. It’s that simple.

The same is true with your personal relationships. If someone you love is in a dark and stormy mood, but won’t fess up to it, you have every right to continue to be happy and keep your spirit soaring. And, likewise, when you’re feeling blue, take responsibility for it and don’t lash out or put it on your friends and family.

I don’t regret anything about my years turning tables. Truthfully, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time working in restaurants. And the lessons that I’ve learned about people, about how we communicate and how we behave have been immense. It’s so funny, the things that stick with us. I never thought I’d ever learn anything from serving; I thought it was just a quick way to earn cash. But everything you do molds you, for better or worse, and with an open heart you can find nuggets of wisdom in any job—even waiting tables.

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